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Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Teaching with Complex Text: Haven't You Ever Heard of the ZPD?

August 24, 2020

Teacher question: I’ve read what you’ve written about the instructional level. You claim that there is no such thing. Haven’t you ever heard of the “zone of proximal development (ZPD)?”

Shanahan's response:

I’ve heard of it, but if you think what I’ve written is contradictory to it, then I suspect you don’t really understand the ZPD construct or its relationship to this aspect of reading.

Let’s start with the “instructional level” idea first.

A century ago, it was common practice for reading teachers to place children in different reading books based on their abilities. For instance, one Wisconsin survey from 1918 shows that the majority of teachers were grouping children by book placements; this was the old bluebirds, redbirds, and crows plan. It was also more than a decade prior to Vygotsky’s ZPD and about three decades before the instructional level was operationalized.

In the 1920s and 1930s, various reading educators (e.g., Donald Durrell, William S. Gray) referred to the idea of their being an instructional level – that is an optimum student-book match that would promote maximum learning; but these references were informal, much like the actual classroom practices being used at the time. There was not any very explicit theory of it, and there were no criteria for determining what a good match would be… just the vague idea that texts could be too hard to support learning.

This changed in the 1940s with the publication of Foundations of Reading by Emmett Betts. Betts made explicit the theory of the instructional level (along with the independent and frustration reading levels). He also endorsed a specific measurement scheme that would supposedly allow teachers to place their students properly; that is, in texts that would lead to the greatest amount of learning.

Throughout the 20th century, university-based reading experts “tsked-tsked” about teachers who were not placing their students in easy enough books, because, of course, there were still many teachers who just used a single grade level reader without adjustment.

Lev Vygotsky’s work on the zone of proximal development took place in Russia during the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, this work had no impact whatsoever on American education until the 1960s when it was first translated to English.

Basically, the ZPD idea was Vygotsky’s attempt to cast learning into a social context. He was reacting to earlier schemes proposed by other psychologists (Piaget, for instance) who had treated learning as more of an isolated, individual pursuit. According to Vygotsky, there is a social transaction that takes place between a learner and someone more knowledgeable or skilled that leads to learning; that is, this series of social interactions take someone from a state of not being able to do something to being able to do it.

An example might help.

Mom wants Junior to learn to tie his own shoes. She says something like, “Junior, let’s tie your shoe. Watch. First, we cross the strings like this, and then we tuck this end under and pull it tight. Next we make bunny ears and then cross them and put this end under. Pull it tight again.”

Now, mom might be stressing that “we” are doing these things, but that is just a social device. Junior really cannot tie his shoes yet. This social interaction is getting him to participate in the task by watching closely under her direction.

At some point, mom changes this routine. “Junior, what do we do first when we tie our shoes?” The child responds that you have to cross the strings and tuck one end under, and she tells him to do it, he does, and she completes the task for him. Over several such episodes, Junior takes over more of the task until it is mastered.

Initially, mom knows how to tie shoes and Junior does not. Over time, however, Junior becomes able to do it, too, as a result of mom’s demonstration, accompanying language, explicit guidance, and so on. These social supports are the basis of learning in Vygotsky’s theory (and these supports are what Jerome Bruner and company later described as “scaffolds”). The scaffold metaphor is an apt one – notice that the shoes always end up getting tied – with mom providing only as much support as necessary.

ZPD refers to that space between when the learner can’t do some task at all and when he/she can do the whole thing independently.

Vygotsky died before he could fully rough out the implications of ZPD, but it is fair to say that it was a startlingly different concept than what Betts’ (and later Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, & Lucy Calkins) conceived the instructional level to be.

According to Betts, students would make the greatest reading gains when a text was matched to the child’s reading level. If the child were placed in an easier or harder text, then less learning would result. This makes the learning zone very narrow and very specific; you are either in it, or you don’t learn. But Vygotsky’s notion was much broader, more supple and dynamic; Junior was learning even when the only role he could play was to follow mom’s actions with his eyes.

The mechanistic and automatic quality of the instructional level is much more consistent with the kind of individual learning psychology that Vygotsky was challenging (with his more social teaching psychology).

That’s why those who embrace the instructional level idea are so gung-ho about independent learning. They encourage minimal teaching, because if the book placements are right then there should be little for the students to figure out and they should be able to do much of that on their own.

However, if you recognize that the ZPD is not just a narrow band of learning territory, but the entire distance between where the child is now (in terms of concepts and skills) and what full proficiency would be, then placing students in grade level text won’t seem so odd. We’re both trying to work in the ZPD, but instructional level fans want to zero in on a particularly slender slice of it.

And, if you accept that the ZPD can be so varied and expansive, then Vygotsky’s relative valuing of the social interaction that is teaching over the idea that students will learn mainly through their own individual explorations should make more sense, too.

Students who are working in a text that they can already read pretty well (the skinny little instructional level slice of the ZPD) will need considerably less scaffolding than those grappling with a relatively harder text.

The instructional level approach tries to minimize what needs to be learned in the hopes that kids will be able to figure those things out by themselves. By contrast, the idea of teaching with more complex text aims to expand the role of teaching in order to maximize the amount of student learning.

Aside from those differences, both approaches toil within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

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"A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket." — Chinese Proverb